This New Jersey City Is Turning Illegal Dumps Into Public Art Hotspots

Long plagued by poverty, corruption and crime, Camden is on the road to recovery. Reactivating vacant lots for community use, including ones along the city's transit corridors, is receiving special emphasis. (Photo: Blake Bolinger/Flickr)

For many, the first — and often most lasting — impression of a city comes from glancing out the window of a passing train. And sometimes, those impressions aren't pretty.

Case in point: Camden, New Jersey.

For those traveling via rail through this once-prosperous industrial hub located directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the first impression might be waste: innumerable mounds of illegally discarded waste. The vacant lots — and there are many — lining Camden's major transit corridors have long been used as unlawful dumping grounds for local residents, businesses and industries alike. Per Camden Mayor Francisco Moran, illegal dumping costs the city upwards of $4 million per year.

In the overall scheme of things, illegal dumping along rail corridors may seem like a minor concern for New Jersey's 12th most populous municipality. Despite its rich cultural and economic history, Camden has for years been associated with political corruption, economic woes, and for having some of the highest violent crime rates in the country. (And canned soup.)

Today, this scrappy South Jersey burg once regarded as the most dangerous city in America is on the mend. Crime rates are decreasing, food deserts are shrinking and businesses are moving in thanks to attractive tax incentives. Most notably, the Camden riverfront is enjoying an ongoing revitalization as the city continues to position itself as a major regional hub for health care and education.

As Camden continues to bounce back, city leaders are paying particular mind to appearances. With roughly 65,000 people traveling through Camden daily, no one — not a resident or a visitor — wants to be confronted by trash-strewn blight when gazing out a train window. And this is where "A New View" comes in.

Abandoned parcel, Camden, NJ
City and community leaders are eager to breathe new life into Camden's preponderance of abandoned lots. (Photo: Blake Bolinger/Flickr)

Altering perceptions through public art

The fifth and final winner of Bloomberg Philanthropies' Public Art Challenge, A New View is an arts-based environmental cleanup and beautification initiative that aims to "transform sites plagued by illegal dumping along major transit corridors into dynamic art spaces, inspiring residents and attracting visitors." As a winner of the Public Art Challenge, the project will receive $1 million in funding to help clear out vacant lots to make way for "multi-purpose community forums" that will host public art installations and cultural programming.

Reads the project microsite: "Cleaner corridors showcase Camden's momentum toward revitalization, restore resident pride and reduce the financial burden on city government."

While not yet known what the upcoming installations and programming will entail, or which local or national artists are involved (that's all under way), the soon-to-be-revamped dump sites — seven in total — have been identified.

Per the Philadelphia Inquirer, three of the sites will be located along the Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) high-speed rail line, which links Philadelphia with Camden and several major South Jersey population centers. A single trash-filled lot along New Jersey Transit's River Line light rail system will also be transformed, as will an additional three sites situated next to the Camden GreenWay, a network of walking and biking trails that snakes through several neighborhoods.

River Line, Camden, NJ
One vacant lot-turned-public art space will be along the River Line, a light rail system linking Camden to Trenton. (Photo: Michael Hicks/Flickr)

"Anyone taking a PATCO train through the city can see the destruction and decay caused by criminal dumping in Camden," Camden County Freeholder (the term for a county legislator in New Jersey) Jeffrey Nash, liaison to the Camden County Department of Parks, declared at a recent news conference. "We are going to work to not only create art installations, but craft and construct places where our community can thrive, and what we hope to be the very definition of a third place for residents to congregate outside their home and workplace."

Urban redevelopment nonprofit Cooper's Ferry Partnership and Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts is heading the initiative, and will work with a range of arts and environmental organizations as well as directly with businesses and residents.

As reported by the Inquirer, cleanup activities at the sites will commence later this year in preparation for the art installations, which will come in 2020 and could potentially include sculptures, murals, mosaics and more.

"Public art has the power to bring people together to strengthen their communities," says Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire business magnate and former New York City mayor, in a press statement. "Camden is harnessing that power by transforming dumping sites into works of art along the city's public transit routes, which will symbolize — and further spur — the city's ongoing resurgence."

A plan to discourage illegal dumping while repurposing vacant lots

Two key players in the effort to create art-filled transit corridors are Camden Collaborative Initiative and Connect the Lots. The former is an environmental consortium with the mission to improve the quality of life for Camden residents through various initiatives including anti-illegal dumping campaigns. The latter is a collaboration between the City of Camden and Cooper's Ferry Partnership dedicated to activating disused pockets of urban blight (i.e., vacant lots) and underutilized parks through cultural, artistic and recreational programming.

Connect the Lots-helmed activities and events include outdoor movie screenings, pop-up al fresco fitness classes and a lunchtime summer concert series staged in front of city hall. A New View will operate as a special program of Connect the Lots.

Although A New View will make traveling by rail through Camden infinitely more visually appealing, while also helping to change perceptions of the city, Kimberly Camp, a project curator and Camden native, tells WNYC the overarching mission of the initiative is to spark positive engagement with local residents.

"When you culturally empower people, the next step is political empowerment," Camp says. "When you allow people to see the beautiful parts of life through music and dance, and the visual arts, poetry, they usually want more."

Anchorage, Tulsa and others get public art-based boost

Civic engagement and empowerment is ultimately the raison d'être of the Public Art Challenge, which received applications from more than 200 cities with populations of at least 30,000 when the program kicked off in early 2018. Fourteen finalists were announced in July, while the gradual unveiling of the five winners began in November. As mentioned, Camden's A New View was the final grant recipient to be announced in late January.

"Public art tends to build bridges and strengthen civic infrastructure," Kate Levin, head of the arts program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, tells the Courier-Post. "It requires a certain level of engagement, and so when we looked at the applicants, we looked for projects that would benefit from this sort of approach."

The first announced winner was SEED Lab, a cultural center planned for Anchorage, Alaska, themed around climate change. Also receiving $1 million grants were the city of Coral Springs, Florida, which, in partnership with the neighboring city of Parkland, has proposed five temporary art installations that foster collective healing in the wake of last year's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Jackson, Mississippi, will use the funds to stage "Fertile Ground," a series of installations and performances themed around domestic hunger, nutrition and food access.

Finally, Tulsa, Oklahoma's proposal will employ public art to bring greater awareness and understanding of the city's Historic Greenwood District. Known in the early 20th century as Black Wall Street, Greenwood was all but erased from the map in 1921 by a race-motivated massacre and later by midcentury urban-renewal projects.

Shortlisted proposals came from Baltimore, Seattle, St. Louis, Honolulu, Austin, El Paso and Miami, as well as Holyoke, Massachusetts, and the Californian city of Santa Rosa, which was ravaged by wildfires in October 2017.

Back in Camden, the city is thrilled to have additional resources that will not only enable it to clear a handful of rubbish-filled vacant lots, but to replace these sources of blight with something morale-boosting and meaningful to the community.

"This funding will allow Camden's best and brightest artists, curators and community-builders to come together to beautify highly visible areas of the city. A New View will shine light on important urban issues, and strengthen our neighborhoods and tourism sector," says Kris Kolluri, president and CEO of Cooper's Ferry Partnership, in a statement. "We can't thank them enough for this opportunity."